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3 intriguing books you may have missed in 2010

December 28, 2010

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

Here are three good reads that might have flown under your radar this year. Before you get inundated with 2011 releases, we recommend that you take a look.

1. “The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America,” by Mae Ngai

Some biographers get lucky, and their subjects leave behind detailed diaries and letters chronicling their lives. Ironically, Mae Ngai didn’t have such good fortune when writing The Lucky Ones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp.), the story of the Tapes, a family of Chinese-American immigrants. She did, however, get access to their photo albums and public records, and spoke to descendents. It also helped, of course, that the Tape family made such significant impressions on the Chinese-American community.

Patriarch Jeu Dip, or Joseph Tape as he came to be known, left China in 1864, when he was 12 years old. On his own he made it San Francisco, where he became a successful immigration broker, married, and had four children. His family was the first of the “Americanized Chinese”: They lived in a middle class white neighborhood, had white friends, and wore American clothing. Still they were subject to the discriminatory laws and violence associated with the Chinese, despite their protests. It was their daughter, Mamie Tape, who attempted to integrate California schools in one of the first Chinese-American civil rights cases, and their son Frank who years later was the first to serve on a jury.

The Tapes’ lives, Ngai notes, were a paradox: exceptional, yet archetypal at the same time. In the end, it’s no matter that the family didn’t write down its history – Ngai does it for them more than aptly.

2. “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine,” by George Dohrmann

For eight years Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann followed a team of talented basketball players and their ruthless coach. The premise wouldn’t be remarkable if not for one detail: The players are 10 years old when the book begins. Before they even enter middle school, the boys are touted as future NBA superstars and recruited to high-profile youth basketball teams. They become pawns in a cutthroat game of insurmountable expectation played by parents, coaches, scouts, and big-name shoe companies. In the seedy world of grassroots basketball, it doesn’t matter that they’re just kids.

To tell the story, Dohrmann focuses on coach Joe Keller, and his young protégé Demetrius Walker in Play Their Hearts Out (Ballantine Books, 432 pp.). When Keller discovers Demetrius, a latchkey kid with enough “extraordinary athleticism” to be the next Lebron James, the coach devotes his life to promoting him. Keller showers the boy with gifts, builds a team around his talent, and even misses his daughter’s birth for a tournament. Why? It’s all part of his master plan: cultivate Demetrius’ talent, score a sneaker deal, and reap the benefits of power and riches.

Readers with little knowledge of basketball need not worry about incomprehensible sports talk. With thorough reporting Dohrmann narrates the corrupt grassroots system from all sides in clean, compelling detail.

3. “The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance,” by David Herlihy

Before Amelia Earhart set off to circumnavigate the globe, there was a different breed of intrepid world traveler: the cyclist. In 1892, young and handsome Frank Lenz quit his accounting job in favor of a 20,000-mile, three-continent jaunt around the globe atop his newfangled “safety” bicycle (as opposed to the more popular, and dangerous, 56-inch front wheel bike).

With the trip came fame, adventure, exposure to foreign cultures, and, inevitably, great danger. On the final leg of his trip, two years after his initial departure, Lenz mysteriously disappeared somewhere in eastern Turkey. In The Lost Cyclist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp.) premier bicycle historian David Herlihy recounts Lenz’ tale, and – simultaneously – that of William Sachtleben, the roving detective-cyclist sent to find out what happened to Lenz.

The book – equal parts travelogue, murder mystery, and political saga – comes complete with 30-something pages of black-and-white photographs, many of them taken by Lenz and sent to Outing magazine during his lengthy ride: Lenz posing with his bicycle in front of a giant Buddha statue in Japan, chatting with a local at the Taj Mahal, crouching beside a camel in the Persian desert. Lenz and Sachtleben’s observations of the world outside the United States, available thanks to their letters, journals, and travel features, are perhaps the most intriguing part of the story.

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